Monday, 12 March 2012

Desperate Measures for Desperate Hopes

Chapter 9

"VIETNAM SURRENDERS!" Two words in the largest print I had ever seen any newspaper use. The April 30 headline said all that needed to be said. What else could have been said?

"What now?" I wondered dejectedly. 

When I first began writing to Phi Bang I never thought the end of that Southeast Asian conflict would come. The armies and political systems of South Vietnam had collapsed in a quickly disintegrating retreat that could not be slowed or halted. 

Over the years, Vietnam had been a political and social issue that I had so long sought to ignore. Suddenly no time was left now to even try to understand what the issues had been about. Surrender to the communist north was a situation totally beyond my comprehension. Regardless, a new era would dawn in Vietnam but no one knew what could be expected. No one could even be certain that the bloodbath the Americans had said for years would follow, actually would follow. Picking up the photo of Phi Bang from the desk, I looked at her.

"What are you doing now, my dear Phi Bang? Are you safe from harm?" I questioned, silently imploring God for an immediate answer. "My love, I hope that God will watch over you and your family. Do not forget notre pays du soleil because I won’t forget the hope we briefly shared. I promise you I’ll never forget you Phi Bang, my dear love friend in Vietnam."

Sitting at my desk and like many times before, I reached forward for the pipe tin and a pouch of tobacco. After filling and lighting one of the pipes I watched as the clouds of smoke billowed out of the bowl. Life had a certain familiarity to pipe smoking, a familiarity I hated. Life always seemed to be a series of hopes and dreams that always went up in the smokes of disappointment and failure. Some failures, perhaps most, were of my own doing but others were beyond my control. Vietnam was beyond my control but I knew I probably failed to tell Phi Bang exactly how I felt about her.

Sitting at my desk I stared pensively at the photograph of Phi Bang and contemplated about what might have been, what could have been, what I secretly desired and hoped would have been and what I angrily and frustratedly believed should have been. If only we had more time. Why did everything in South Vietnam have to end so quickly? 

I thought about the letters she had written to me. One aspect about Phi Bang's letters had intrigued me. She never once wrote about or even indirectly mentioned the war. Before the fall of South Vietnam, she had written to me and sent that final letter from Saigon. If she had feared the coming of the end of the war, then I did not know because she had not revealed her concerns about what the future may hold for her and her family.

A large photograph on the front page of the evening newspaper showed the desperate throngs at the American embassy as helicopters airlifted out the last Americans and others, during the last minutes. American experts were estimating that perhaps as many as 60,000 people fled from the beaches at Vung Tau. The number was probably accurate because many of those people were being plucked from the seas by an American naval task force operating off the coast of Vietnam.

The following morning Canada Post refused to accept my letters or any mail destined for Vietnam. An embargo had been imposed and no one at Canada Post knew how long the embargo would remain. The postal clerk assured me, however, that this was not the first time a country had been embargoed because of turmoil. In all probability, mail services would return to normal within a few weeks.

"Within a few weeks?" I silently questioned as I departed from the post office. The answer sounded like a new definition of forever. Wish as I might, nothing I could do, or may have wanted to do, would change any of the circumstances.

Later that evening I listened to the radio and heard stories about daring escapes from a first handful of people who had safely fled by boat from Vietnam. During the following days more accounts appeared in the newspapers about the thousands of people fleeing in boats from Vietnam. The numbers may have been in the hundreds of thousands as boatloads of refugees began landing on the shores of neighbouring countries. The Americans estimated that perhaps as many as 130,000 Vietnamese had fled during the final days of Saigon alone.

In those first few days after Saigon fell, I kept hoping that one last letter would come from Phi Bang, a letter that had already been on the way when the situation was confused. Nothing came, and I stopped expecting to receive any word as long as the postal embargo was in effect. While I may have understood the situation in cold clear logic, on an emotional level I kept wondering why. Perhaps my calling in life should have been to champion lost causes or to dream impossible dreams, but I was not from LaMancha.

The ensuing days were adding up into ensuing weeks and I kept checking with Canada Post to see if the embargo had been lifted. Nothing had changed. Nonetheless, I continued placing letters in mailboxes in different parts of Vancouver hoping that perhaps one would be overlooked and possibly get out of Canada. All were later returned with a heavily inked notice stamped on the outside of the envelope that left no doubt about the reason for its return. "Embargo. Return to sender."

The news media continued to report heart-rending stories about boatloads of people being rescued at sea. Photographs portraying the Vietnamese and their plights kept frequently appearing in newspapers and magazines. I began scrutinizing the faces in the photographs, wondering if by chance I would find Phi Bang. That probability was virtually non-existent, but I did it anyway. 

Refugees who were picked up by American ships were being transported to Guam, Wake Island or Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. After processing, the refugees were being flown to the United States. The press reported that the tiny island of Guam quickly became a tent city holding more than 40,000 people.

Phi Bang's brief but special intrusion into my life had an effect on the few new pieces of music that I had been working on. For distraction I spent time in the library searching through musical reference books. I could not find any information about Vietnamese music but the reference books contained more than sufficient material about Chinese music. Chinese music appeared to be structured in almost the same manner as western music but that really did not tell me anything at all about traditional Vietnamese music. Regardless, I assumed that historical Chinese cultural influences on Vietnam had been significant. The five tone pentatonic scale appears to be universal, pervasive in Chinese music and just as pervasive in the music of my Celtic heritage. Structural differences were almost imperceptible when listening to recorded performances of both types of music. Even so, the lack of information left me with a nagging uncertainty about how similar or dissimilar Vietnamese music is to Chinese music.

When I finally had an opportunity to sit down at a piano and fiddle with the ivories, I refined the structure of my new composition and inserted what I thought were oriental sounding musical idioms. At first I thought it impossible to produce the sounds I wanted to hear from the keyboard but slowly I wrested those timbres and tones I had been grasping for. The musical work took shape and was a marked departure from any of my previous compositions. Without ceremony or fanfare, my new opus was titled, "Sketches of a Vietnamese Girl" and dedicated to Phi Bang. 

I was depressed from having been cut off from communicating with Phi Bang. Her letters had been brief moments of sunshine that fleetingly entered into my existence that had seemed so very much like the dreary winter rains of Vancouver. I missed receiving Phi Ban's letters. As ridiculous as the thought may have been, I actually missed someone I had never met. I missed Phi Bang. 

Near the end of May I arranged to take a few days off work to add to the holiday long weekend. I was hoping that a leisurely rail cruise across the spectacular mountains of British Columbia coupled with a few days of hiking and camping would help me take my mind off Phi Bang.

Several days later Matthew heard about my planned trip and asked if he could accompany me. I readily accepted his offer. Although Matthew had never visited eastern British Columbia before, he was nonetheless experienced with camping and hiking. Following an evening of discussion we decided to hike from Golden to Field, a map distance of 35 miles. Upon arriving at Field we would then wait to connect with CP Rail's westbound passenger train for our return trip to Vancouver. We figured our trek would take two days, however, we made an allowance for three days.

Fifteen hours and 470 miles of overnight coach travel later we detrained at Golden. We waited briefly for the Canadian to disappear eastward over the route we were about to travel. CP Rail's eastward uphill alignment out of Golden through to Glenogle, a passing siding, follows the corkscrew route of the Kicking Horse River through the narrow canyon with the same name. On one side of the track is the river. On the opposite side is an almost vertical rock wall. 

Based upon what I had observed from the train on previous journeys and what the topographical maps indicated, we chose to hike along the CP Rail route for the first several miles to a highway bridge where the Trans Canada Highway crossed over the river and CP Rail. From there our route would be the highway, at least as far as Leanchoil. By following our projected path, we would avoid the steep and narrow road climb out of Golden.

After trudging over the first few miles of the railway route at the base of the Kicking Horse Canyon we rounded yet another curve in the series of many curves and approached a steel black bridge that slowly came into view with each step closer. CP Rail's crossing over the river to the opposite wall of the canyon. Just beyond the far side of the bridge was the mouth of a tunnel.

"What's that?" Matthew asked, sounding somewhat excited. 

"What's it look like?" I asked wondering what he was suddenly agitated about.

"Looks like a bridge!" he exclaimed.

"It’s a bridge." I said as we approached the end of the steel structure.

"Well I ain't crossing it!" Matthew stated emphatically.

"Haven't you ever crossed a bridge before?" I asked.

"Sure! Lots of times! But not one with tracks on it." he revealed.

"It's not much different from any other bridges." I assured him.

"I can see down through it.” he declared as he stepped up to the edge of the bridge abutment.

"Yeah...I know. Railway bridges are usually like that." I replied matter-of-factly.

"Well I ain't crossing it!" Matthew stated again just as emphatically.

"Matt, we can't climb the rock wall on this side and we can't cross through the river to that side so we don't have much choice now but to cross this bridge and go on.” I argued.

"Well I ain't crossing it!" Matthew insisted again. 

“The only other route is to walk all the way back to Golden and follow the highway." I pointed out.

"Well I ain't crossing it!" Matthew repeated just as emphatically as before.

"It's easy. No different than walking along the tracks." I assured him.

"Then you cross it and show me how it's done." he suggested, daring me to do it.

"Sure." I said. 

Dropping my backpack on the ground beside Matthew, I crossed over to the opposite end of the short bridge and then crossed back. A few years earlier, unsanctioned practice on CNR's bridge over Riviere des Prairies in Montreal had made crossing this small CPR bridge seem too easy.

"You did it!" Matthew exclaimed. He truly had not expected that I actually would cross the bridge.

"I told you, it's easy." I confessed.

"Okay professor, but what if a train comes?" he asked.

"First of all, don't panic or run. Just move out on one of those girders and climb in the span's framework. It's safe there as long as you don’t poke your head out to look at the train while it’s passing." I said, pointing out the steel work connected to the spans.

"Have you ever done this before?" Matthew asked, not completely certain he believed me.

"Yes. On a bridge much longer and higher than this one.” I stated.

“Really?” Matthew asked, sounding as if he did not believe me.

“Yeah, a group of us. We were right out in the middle of that railway bridge when a train came. And yes, I was scared." I revealed.

"What were you doing that for?" Matthew asked.

"We were playing and fooling around at the end of the bridge. It was just a place to hang around and smoke." I started.

"So what happened?" Matthew asked when I paused. 

I was not certain if I wanted to recount this particular story out here right now, but continued anyway, "Some guy walked across from the other side. Turned out he was a CNR cop and caught the whole group of us by surprise."

"Didn't you see him coming?" he asked, interrupting my story.

"We did, but he'd removed his hat and tie and put on a sweater to hide his uniform. Ends up he forgot to bring his pen and notepad to write down our names and telephone numbers so he ordered all eight of us to accompany him across the bridge so he could take down the details at his car. All of us were out in the middle of that bridge when the train came." I recalled. 

"Did the train stop?" Matthew asked. 

"No, it couldn't...and we couldn't outrun it either." I confirmed. 

Matthew said nothing and I continued, "I can't remember who saw the train first but that cop was more scared than we were. Anyway he told us how to get out of the way by climbing out into the spans."

"What if a railroad cop comes along here now?" Matthew asked.

"Out here in the middle of nowhere?" I asked. 

"Yeah." He confirmed.

"No one’s that crazy." I declared.

"Then what are we doing out here at this bridge?" Matthew asked, reminding me that we were out here in the middle of nowhere.

"Then let's get going. The longer we wait here debating about whether or not you're going to cross, the more likely it’ll be that a train or something else comes along." I stated and then picked up my backpack.

"You go first. I'll follow." Matthew conceded.

We started over the bridge and about half way across Matthew stopped. He had been looking down between the railway ties at the water flowing beneath the bridge, became mesmerized and froze with fear. Worse, he was ignoring my coaxing to get him moving so I climbed out into the span.

"What are you doing out there?" Matthew shouted at me when he realized he was alone between the rails.

"You can either go forward, go backward, or come out here on the span, but you can’t stay there between the rails." I shouted back.

Matthew snapped out of his panic and charged forward off the bridge. I climbed off the span and joined him.

"Now was it really that difficult?" I asked him.

"I'll never do that again." he vowed.

"Yes you will." I countered.

"Well I ain't going back over it." Matthew declared with a determination that he was not going back.

"Who said anything about going back? There’re another three bridges to cross in the next two miles of track ahead." I gently informed him.

"Do we have to go through that?" Matthew asked, pointing at the dark opening in the side of the mountain.

"No. Bridges we can deal with but tunnels we avoid." I stated, emphasizing the word avoid.

"Where do we go from here?" he asked.

"I want to take another look at the map so I think we should pause for a rest in that clearing over there." I said, pointing at an area that had been bulldozed flat between the river and the tunnel portal.

During the hour and a half since we had started out from Golden the skies cleared. The sun had moved, shadows shrank until almost nil and the floor of the canyon became uncomfortably warm. The steel rails of Canadian Pacific's famous route radiated heat like hot water pipes that made our not so famous expedition feel even hotter. Out of curiosity we briefly peered into the curved tunnel. We were unable to see the other end nonetheless we could see daylight from the far portal reflecting off the tunnel walls. 

We left the track, dropped our backpacks in the shade at the trunk of a fir tree and found some temporary seats on the boulders at the river's edge. We could not have been seated beside the river for more than two minutes when a westbound freight train blasted out of the tunnel. Until the lead engine had charged out into the daylight, the trains' approach had been absolutely silent, muffled by the rushing sounds of the Kicking Horse River.

"I can see why you want to avoid tunnels. We could have been killed!" Matthew exclaimed. 

"From here we can follow the river around this same hill the tunnel runs through. We'll end up back at the railway track at the other end of that tunnel. According to my calculations it’s a half-mile loop." I concluded after my consultation with the map.

The half-mile loop proved to be an arduous detour. The river's bank was littered with thousands of craggy rocks and boulders and many were too large to step over. At one point to get around the butt of the mountain we were compelled to walk knee deep in the brutally cold blue-green water that had an almost chalk-like feeling to it. The current was swift and our steps upon some of the submerged stones were often less than certain. Loss of balance could have easily spelled a plunge into the deeper waters of the turbulent turquoise torrent. Incredulously I wondered how anyone could possibly have trekked through these inhospitable mountains and frigid glacial rivers a century earlier to search out and survey possible routes for this railway. The surveyors must have been crazier than we were. Walking on the stones of the railway track was difficult enough.

In the early afternoon we left CP Rail's route and the Kicking Horse River behind when we climbed the hill and out of the base of the canyon to join up with the Trans Canada Highway. We paused briefly to rest and also to enjoy the view of the canyon and the railway from up on the highway bridge. Shortly afterward we continued our plodding eastward, as far as Hunter Creek. The soles of our feet were sore and both of us were weary from the day's hard-won mileage. Upstream and away from sight of the highway we set up camp for the night. The ground was rocky and we were unable to peg the tent. Defiantly, we tied the tent cords to heavy rocks and eventually had a standing shelter. 

Our goal for the day had been to reach Leanchoil but we stopped several miles short, physically worn out from the harsh demands of trekking over miles of railway, river, highway and hills while carrying heavy packs on our backs. From the confines of a desk in an office in a large city, hiking and camping out in the wilderness of British Columbia had seemed like such an ideal and idyllic retreat. Being out here and actually doing it was a blunt sobering dose of reality. In spite of their towering majestic beauty the mountains were absolutely inhospitable. As the sun beat down on us throughout the day we craved for and needed more water than we were able to comfortably carry. By travelling on foot we quickly discovered that glacial streams were often farther apart than we wanted. When we found running water, the ice cold liquid was usually cloudy with minerals and tasted like chalk. We drank the water anyway and were grateful to have it.

In the evening we sat in front of a sparking fire and witnessed the waning minutes of daylight, I removed the note pad and pen from my pocket and started writing.

"What’re you doing?" Matthew finally asked out of curiosity.

"Making notes." I answered.

"I can see that but for what?" he asked.

"When I get back to Vancouver I’m going to write to Phi Bang and tell her about this adventure!" I stated, and probably sounding as if I was making a vow.

"I thought you came here to try to get her off your mind." Matthew commented.

"I did, but how can anyone just suddenly stop thinking about someone special?" I asked, not really looking for an answer, and then added, "Some people may be able to do it, but I can't." 

I folded the note pad and returned it to my pocket. For a while I stared at the flames, kept throwing twigs into the fire and pondered. Yes, I came here to fight off depression but coming here did not mean that I was going to stop thinking about Phi Bang. No. I did not know whether or not she was still in Saigon or if she had returned to Tay Ninh. According to news reports that had leaked out, things were far different in Vietnam. 

Saigon had been renamed Ho Chi Minh City, but so far, no reports or rumours about thousands of South Vietnamese being killed by the communists. The embargo by Canada Post was still in effect, but even if it was lifted, I did not know if Phi Bang would be able to or allowed to write to me. My imagination painted despairing scenes of Phi Bang being forcibly sent off to a horrible labour camp because she had been caught writing a letter to a westerner. Bad news could be dealt with, but not knowing was torture. I just did not know the answers to any of my questions and concerns about Phi Bang. God just seemed so very silent on the subject.

Trucks continuously roared by on the highway. From the floor of the valley came the thudding sound of diesels on a freight train that was battling the hills to move commerce over the rails of the Van Horne route. As I lay awake on the uncomfortable rocky ground waiting for sleep to come, I wondered, "Why did I come here?"

Just after 02:00 I was awakened by the sound of sporadic raindrops hitting the tent. The pattering rain pattern quickly developed into a steady downpour and I fell asleep again. Around 03:30 I awoke cold and wet. Rainwater running off the higher ground had passed beneath the floor of my side of the tent. As far as I could tell, Matthew was sound asleep and oblivious to the weather changes that had occurred. I began shivering uncontrollably so I arose and left the confines of the tent. The rain had quit a while earlier but fog had rolled in to take its place. Fortunately I had the good sense, or plain blind luck, to shelter some wood inside the tent last evening so I quickly and easily had a blazing fire going. Trying to warm up, I huddled beside the fire and periodically puffed away on my pipe.

Hunched over in a ball-like seated position beside the fire I fitfully dozed until daybreak came. The fog had moved off our camp but was still covering the floor of the lower valley. With dense white fog covering the valley, the mountains of the Beaverfoot Range had the appearance of tall peaks poking through clouds, an absolutely beautiful sunrise. 

As the sun rose higher, the fog quickly burned off. I was tired, sore and definitely not ready to repeat yesterday's efforts. Liking our situation or not, we had to push on. We had no choice because we had no other way out. By 08:00 Matthew and I had everything stowed away in our backpacks and we resumed our journey toward Field.

A while later we passed through the entrance gateway into Yoho National Park. We paused at the first picnic site. Adjacent to the site a colony of gopher-like creatures had moved in. The small tawny coloured rodents kept poking their heads up out of their burrows but quickly disappeared when we made any attempt to approach and take a closer look at them. Obviously the nosey residents did not like equally nosey visitors. More than a dozen of the little inhabitants had dug out a maze of tunnels beneath the ground. As entertaining as they were to watch, we did not stay very long. 

We reached Leanchoil at about the same the eastbound Canadian was due to arrive in Golden. I walked down the hill along the gravel access road to the train station. The maroon and yellow C.P.R. structure was empty and dilapidated. I insisted upon waiting to watch and photograph the famous stainless steel passenger train as it passed by the station. The train was on time, made its daily appearance and I had my photograph for posterity. 

Upon reaching the sharp bends in both the highway and railway at the foot of the Ottertail Range, our direction of travel made a very marked change from south easterly to due north. Matthew and I chose to follow Porcupine Fire Road over to the railway. We figured that this route would be quieter than walking along the Trans Canada Highway that had become very busy with a non-stop stream of cars and trucks that constantly screamed by us.

CP Rail's route curved sharply around a rock outcropping, and beyond was a mile or more of straight right of way. After we had been limping along for a while I noticed that water was on both sides of the track embankment. In 1884 this part of the railway had been laid through what resembled a bog. More than ninety years later this location was still not a good spot to be in if a train came along.

"There’s something on the track up ahead." I said and stopped.

"What’re dogs doing out here in the middle of nowhere? Matthew wondered aloud.

"I don't know but I don't like the thought of meeting up with loose dogs." I muttered.

"They're not dogs!" Matthew exclaimed, suddenly realizing they were not dogs.

"Then what are they?" I asked.

"Bears!" he exclaimed.

"Bears?" I questioned, and added, "They don't look big enough."

"Maybe you’re right." Matthew said, contradicting what he had just said, and then added, "They look like dogs."

"Matt, they’re bears! This area is well known for bears." I stated.

"What do we do now?" Matthew asked.

"Nothing. They're far enough away for now. They may not even know that we're here. We'll just wait here until they get off the track and disappear into the woods." I suggested.

"What if a train comes?" Matthew asked.

"That’ll chase off the bears and solve our problem." I said.

"Yeah. Sure. Where are we going to go?" Matthew commented, not believing me.

"We'll go down the side of this embankment and, if necessary, into the water." I replied.

"The water is freezing." Matthew reminded me.

"I know, but I really don't think we'll have to go that far down the embankment to get out of the way." I explained.

"What’ll we do if the bears decide to come this way?" Matthew asked.

"I don't know, but I guess we can double-back the way we came. That camp site’s only a mile or so behind us." I said.

Matthew and I climbed down the embankment to get off the track and sat down to wait for the bears to finish with their business and leave. Minutes later, a third bear joined the other two that were already on the track between the rails. We continued our waiting from what I was reasonably certain was a safe enough distance. We were in no hurry to proceed but neither were the bears in any hurry to get off the CP Rail mainline. We were also curious to know what the bears were interested in to keep them on the track.

The bears eventually wandered off and disappeared into the woods. Matthew and I waited a little longer, to be as certain as we could that the bears had actually moved away. We returned to the track and continued along the railway to the spot where the bears had been. Between the rails were the half-eaten, decaying mashed remains of an animal that had probably argued with a train over the right of way and lost. We resumed our plodding on toward Ottertail, CP Rail's next siding and the first location where we would be able to cross back over to the Trans Canada Highway.

Our limping became more pronounced as the soles of our feet begged us to stop. We could not remain where we were but continuing onward had become painfully difficult. Making each successive step was an act of will in a physical battle to keep moving. We eventually arrived at CP Rail's Ottertail siding and continued following the track to the railway bridge over Ottertail Stream. 

We were making our climb from the track up the embankment to the trans Canada Highway when I stumbled and rolled part of the way down the hill. In the tumble I banged my knee against a stone. After waiting for the excruciating pain to subside, and then satisfied nothing was broken, Matthew and I scaled the hill and reached the highway. Field was not far away but was too far for us to reach before dark. We crossed the highway and limped along while trying to hitch a ride to town. Dozens of cars and trucks raced by us but none stopped or even slowed to look.

Boulder Creek was as far as we would travel on foot that day. The soles of our feet were bruised, blistered and just too painful to walk on. Matthew and I were thoroughly exhausted and extremely thirsty because our water supply had run out hours earlier. This was in spite of the fact we had been travelling within sight of water in the bogs and gravel flats created by the confluence of the Kicking Horse River and Ottertail Stream. Boulder Creek was the first place we found water that looked safe enough to drink. We were able to hobble around out of necessity, enduring the discomfort of taking a few steps at a time. Eventually our tent was set up at the far end of a small clearing beside the creek.

My dream retreat of a relaxing stroll in the mountains had become a nightmare of unintentional self-inflicted torture. Recklessly, I had pushed myself beyond my limit for physical endurance and now wanted out of my predicament. Dangerously close to my breaking point and recognizing it for what it was, I needed to get out. We were stuck and I was consciously fighting to maintain my sanity. Mercifully sleep came.

At dusk we were unceremoniously awakened by a park ranger who ordered us to pack up and move to one of the park’s designated campsites. Upon inquiring where the nearest site was, we were informed it was several miles back near Leanchoil. Absolutely no way were either Matthew or I going to be moved in any direction away from Field so we refused to move our camp. In spite of the ranger's threats to fine us for illegally camping we continued to refuse to be pushed into walking any further in any direction. 

Neither one of us could have walked anyway. Relenting somewhat, Matthew and I did offer to break camp only if we could have a ride into Field. The park ranger refused and gave us some official excuse about not being allowed to carry passengers in a park vehicle regardless of the fact his girl friend was in the cab. After a few more minutes of heated argument and our unbending refusal to move, the ranger finally gave in and accepted our terms. He drove us into Field.

Field did not have a hotel or motel but, with some assistance from the park ranger, Matthew and I managed to rent a room for the night in the upstairs of the local watering hole. Beyond the door to our room was a single uncovered light bulb in the ceiling, an unshaded window and two beds with bare mattresses. In some way the architectural similarity of the building reminded me of the bedrooms in my grandparents' house. 

"What a dump." Matthew complained.

"Looks pretty darn good to me...and clean too." I said, very grateful not to be spending another night outdoors on top of rocks.

"Eighteen dollars for this? I think you paid too much." Matthew commented.

"This was a bargain Matt. Believe me, in the morning you'll feel differently about this place." I said.

"Which bed do you want?" Matthew asked.

"The nearest one. I can't walk any further." I replied.

Our ordeal was over and I felt like a humiliated survivor rather than a triumphant adventurer. We fell four miles short of our goal but in those two days we had managed to cover at least 31 miles. Matthew and I were probably lucky to be leaving with our bodies and minds intact. The journey was a gruelling experience that neither of us would forget and that day would prove to be my last visit on foot into the wilds of the Rockies.

I had given up trying to send any more letters to Vietnam. Also, I had stopped expecting to receive another letter from Phi Bang but nonetheless clung to a faint hope that a letter would eventually arrive. Upon returning home from work I checked the table in the upstairs foyer for mail. Plenty of mail alright and all of it for the quiet faceless strangers who lived in the four suites above mine. That evening I did not feel like eating and skipped dinner. As done often enough before, I sat at the desk and stared pensively at the photograph of Phi Bang. Her photograph continued to rest against the backs of the books. The photograph had been there for nearly six months and was still in need of a frame to keep it in. From time to time I thought about buying a frame but so far nothing had been done about it.

I had always presumed that I would be immune to the consequences of the Vietnam War. After all, it had been an American problem. If only I had chosen someone else in another country to write to. What then would the outcome have been? That was a question I would never know the answer to. Getting up from my seat at the desk, I went into the bedroom and searched through the new piles of papers that had accumulated on the bed since Ted's visit last summer. Moments later I had pulled out the magazine-like booklet that had come from Mercury last fall. Returning to my favourite place in front of the desk I began looking though the pages of faces again, that catalogue of familiar strangers. I saw Le thi Lien Huong's picture once more. Many of the ladies had addresses in Saigon. Last autumn I had not paid much attention to the countries but did now, and wondered, "What happened to all these people in Vietnam?"

Reaching the end of the booklet I realized that I was not interested in writing to anyone else. All I had been trying to do was find Phi Bang in the face of someone else. I do not know which Caucasian first said that all oriental people look the same but he was probably some idiot who had never bothered to closely look at the faces of the peoples he had such disdain for. Not one of the hundreds of the young ladies pictured in that catalogue resembled Phi Bang any more than they resembled me. In a fit of anger I hurled the catalogue across the room toward the trash container and missed. The magazine hit the wall and flopped on the floor. Picking up the booklet and tossing it into the garbage I vowed I would never write any more letters to ladies overseas.

After work on the first Friday of June, I visited my favourite shops on Granville and Hastings Streets. Many weeks had passed since my last evening out. While browsing through the soundless treasures on the shelves in the music store, I picked up the score for Schubert's Great C Major Symphony. After briefly studying the orchestration of the first few bars and then closing my eyes, I could silently hear the opening theme. The structure of the first movement could be described as circular because the beginning and closing motifs, while rhythmically varied, are unmistakably the same. 

Listening to the first movement was like going on a journey that would eventually return me to the place where I started. Whoever first described life as being like a journey along a highway could not possibly have known what he was talking about. So far my life had felt too much like being lost on unmapped, two-rut, back roads in unfamiliar wilderness. The last six months must have been a Schubert style journey because somehow I seemed to be right back where I had started. From nowhere, through nowhere, back to nowhere and still with nothing. Perhaps not quite the same person as earlier, or perhaps the same but not with quite the same outlook and perceptions; maybe rhythmically frustrated but so what? Why didn't Schubert finish his eighth symphony? Why didn't Beethoven write his tenth symphony? Where is Phi Bang and what is she doing? 

Returning the printed version of the Schubert symphony back to the shelf I left the store. Perhaps if Schubert had taken the time to complete the eighth symphony then he probably never would have had time to leave the world a ninth symphony. If Beethoven had written his tenth symphony then most certainly he would never have written all of his last five string quartets. I suppose that Phi Bang is back in Tay Ninh trying to adapt to life under a new government.

At the smoke shop I bought several tins of my favourite tobacco mixtures and also picked up a copy of the most recent issue of a railway magazine. Afterward I wandered over to the pizza restaurant with the Italian sounding name for an evening of pizza and beer while reading about trains and railroading. As I sat in the booth waiting for my order to come, I realized the route I had followed and the order of the shops visited was exactly the same as my previous night out in downtown. Had I just lived out the first movement of Schubert's ninth? Maybe, but the only difference was that the Chinese waitress was no longer working at the pizza restaurant. 

Well into the evening I headed home, if that three-room closet in Kitsilano could ever be considered home. The dwelling was a reasonably clean quiet and comfortable place to live, but it was not home. My longing was for a place that I could genuinely call home and even feel that it was home. For me though, home would only be that dwelling where I could live out the remainder of my life with that one special person. A nice thought and a happy dream, but as far as I was concerned, an impossible dream.

The sun had long disappeared beyond the horizon but the western sky was not yet completely dark. The evening air was rather cool and would have been conducive for a brisk walk back but my feet were continuing to bother me after last week's escapades in the Rockies. Instead, I settled for a ride on the bus and debated about whether or not to limp over to Kitsilano Beach to enjoy a pipe or two of one of the tobacco mixtures I had bought earlier.

Upon arriving and before settling in for the evening, I wearily trudged up the stairs to the foyer to check for mail. When I found a small envelope with that familiar handwriting I had been anxiously waiting for, my heart jumped with excitement. At last, a letter from Phi Bang. I tore the envelope open, desperately wanting to read what she would tell me.

"Is the new government in Vietnam going to allow us to continue writing?" I silently wondered.

I unfolded the single small sheet of paper and several crisp new banknotes fell out. Phi Bang had written part of her letter on the now worthless South Vietnamese money.

"My dear, I am not anymore in my country. So sad for that day to come and my heart so heavy with too much sorrow about saying goodbye to Vietnam. I not know how tell you about such event what happen. My English not very good and my thoughts so many to write. I can only come into boat with your letter. A souvenir about the last days at my country. I clutch to hold with hope.

I very afraid to think about what is the future that is mine. Now I'm at Guam. Can you please to help me? I not know anyone else person I can ask to help.

Phi Bang very afraid for several days about whether to live or die in ocean until American boat come to help us. There is not any house here at this place for me to live. I have nothing. Even such small piece of paper to write for you is such difficulty my dear.

Please write to me. I wait your letter but not certain about how long time I remain at this place or where else place to go after here."

Dumbfounded I looked at the envelope again, no stamps on it. God must have heard my many pleas. 

I read and reread Phi Bang’s letter. She had escaped from Vietnam and was now in Guam. This latest turn of events was like a dream that had come true. No dream ever came true for me before. Dreams had always been the stuff nonsense is made from. Difficult to believe and against almost impossible odds, Phi Bang had actually fled and escaped from Vietnam. I was convinced that she had escaped to come to me and now she was asking for my help. She did not have to ask. I would have only too willingly offered to help her.

Not having any idea about what to do or how to help her, I immediately wrote to Phi Bang at the address she had given to me. I promised her that I would help her in any way that I possibly could and, if she wanted to come to Canada, then I would do whatever was necessary to bring her here.

First thing on the following Monday morning I telephoned the Canadian Immigration department to find out what I could do to help Phi Bang. I was repeatedly placed on hold then transferred from one person to another before I was able to talk to anyone who was willing to listen to my problem. Finally someone instructed me to call another number and make an appointment to see an immigration officer. Conveniently, the Department of Immigration was only a couple of blocks from my place of work and I was able to arrange an appointment during my lunch hour. A step in the right direction I thought.

Upon arriving at Canadian Immigration I was given several forms to fill out while waiting for my turn to be called. The nature of the forms was somewhat of a surprise because they dealt with making an application to sponsor a person immigrating to Canada. My only reason for being there was to obtain information about what I could do to help Phi Bang. When inquiring about the documents, I was politely advised that unless I filled out the forms then I was not going to be able to see anyone. Meekly I complied and filled out the paperwork as completely as possible and knowingly stretched the truth a little more than a little. My turn came and I quickly realized I was not asking the questions. Instead, I was replying to numerous questions about the information filled in on the forms and trying to provide answers to many questions I was unable to answer. Every time I tried to cut off the interviewer to ask a question, she kept asking me if I was really interested in helping Phi Bang. Yes, I was interested, but filling out papers and making an application to bring Phi Bang to Canada was not what I had in mind. Then again it was what I wanted to do but not just yet. I was not ready. We were not ready. Phi Bang did not even know what I was doing. At that particular moment all I sincerely wanted was to ask the Canadian Immigration Department some questions and receive their answers to those questions. Nothing more. 

My next obligatory trip was to visit a place called Vital Statistics to obtain more forms that would have to be filled out, signed by both of us and then returned to Canadian Immigration. I had never heard of Vital Statistics before but upon arriving I quickly found out it was the government office where people were married without the services of a church. Outside the entrance of the building a couple dressed for a wedding were bitterly and loudly verbally fighting with each other on the sidewalk, oblivious to the crowds walking around them. I went in and picked up the required documents. Upon leaving I noticed that the squabbling couple had disappeared. I wondered if they were making a turbulent start to a new marriage or a vocal last chance escape from what might otherwise have been a stormy odyssey.

Days later a second letter arrived from Phi Bang post-marked from Camp Pendleton, a military base in California. Phi Bang was in a holding center waiting to be cleared for relocation to a refugee camp elsewhere in the United States. She had no idea where she would be sent or when. I was happy. No, that was an understatement. I was ecstatic. Phi Bang was already in North America and for the first time I was truly beginning to believe that we were actually going to meet each other and be with each other.

Convinced that it was only going to be a matter of months before Phi Bang would arrive in Canada and in a determined effort to be ready for her arrival, I began a search to find a suitable apartment for the two of us to live in. A small cramped dark basement apartment would not be an adequate place for both of us to start out a new life together. At least I had learned this much from Ted's visit.

A week later another letter arrived. Phi Bang's latest letter was mailed from Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. I was surprised to learn that she had already been moved to a holding camp in eastern United States. Phi Bang also sent me some new photographs of her that had been taken at the refugee camp. 

I had no way of knowing if any of my previous letters had ever reached Phi Bang. She had not stayed very long at any of the previous locations she had written from and I did not have any idea how long she would remain at Fort Indiantown Gap. In spite of the uncertainty I wrote anyway and sent her all the forms and documents that I had received from Canadian Immigration and Vital Statistics. I tried to explain to Phi Bang what the situation was for us. The only way I could help her was if she was willing to come to Canada to be my wife. Otherwise, according to the Government of Canada, there was no other way that I could possibly help her.

On the last day of July I moved out of my tiny three-room closet on West First Avenue in Kitsilano and across town into a much larger upstairs one-bedroom apartment on East Broadway near Fraser Street. My new dwelling was more than twice the size and similarly, the rent was more than twice as much. The living room had a large picture window that faced northward and provided me with a beautiful unobstructed view of the mountains north of Vancouver. I missed walking along Kitsilano Beach in the evenings but, since I was busy writing to Phi Bang again, I was not going out for walks as often. Standing at the window and thoughtfully gazing at the view, I was certain that Phi Bang was going to like this place.

My only problem was a lack of furnishings. The furniture in the three-room closet had not been mine to bring with me to this new dwelling. My aunt and uncle helped out by providing me with a few pieces of used furniture from their basement, consisting of a kitchen table, two chairs and a couch. At least I had a place to sit and write. The couch was unsuitable for sleeping on so I removed the two cushions and placed them on the floor for my bed. Sleeping on the floor was surprisingly comfortable after adding a layer of foam rubber on top of the cushions. At first I thought about buying some better furnishings and a proper bed but then decided to wait for Phi Bang to arrive so that we could go out and choose together.

Very early one Sunday morning the telephone began to ring. I had been sound asleep and did not really know how many times the phone had rung.

"Who could possibly be calling now?" I wondered as I sleepily squinted to read the time on the clock, a few minutes after 04:30. The caller persisted and the telephone kept on ringing. After quite a few more rings I relented and got up to answer. 

"Hello." I half mumbled.

The person at the other end of the line said something but I could not understand what it was.

"I'm sorry, but I don't understand what you said." I replied sleepily.

She said something else. From the caller's accent I could tell that she was probably Chinese.

"I'm sorry, but I think you have the wrong number." I said, still unable to figure out what she had said or wanted.

"No..." she insisted, but I could not figure out what she added after no.

"I don't speak Chinese. You have the wrong number." I repeated slowly so that she would understand my message.

"No...Vancouver. Not wrong." she insisted again.

"What number are you trying to call?" I asked, hoping to be helpful. I was actually thinking about hanging up and going back to bed.

"Not understand...please...again...say." she said slowly as if struggling to find the words in English. 

"Wrong number." I enunciated slowly and as clearly as I could.

"No...no." she insisted once more, but still I could not understand the rest of what she said.

I continued trying to convince her that she had the wrong number but, whoever she was, she was insistent she had the right number. She correctly repeated my telephone number back to me. I was about to give up and hang up when the caller, in a tone of frustration, pleaded, "Wait...please...my English...very bad."

Those words jolted me awake. I had read them before. Finally I realized who the person on the other end of the line might be.

"Are you Phi Bang?" I asked hesitantly.

"Yes! My name Vinh thi Phi Bang. Yes! ...Same Phi Bang...you write many letters for." she said in a very hesitant and accented English.

"I don't believe this. Yes, I do believe it. I don't know what to say. Hello! Welcome to North America." I babbled away excitedly.

"Not understand...very sorry." she giggled nervously.

"You don't need to understand. I...I really don't know what to say." I mumbled nervously. Written words were always easier to say than spoken words.

Overwhelmed by the spontaneity of the moment I did not know what to say to Phi Bang. I had often imagined clever and witty things I was going to say to her when we would first meet but I could not remember any of them. It did not matter anyway because complicating the situation was Phi Bang's very limited ability to understand spoken English. Worse, I had difficulty understanding what she was saying or trying to say to me. So far, all I had done was spend the first five minutes or more trying to convince her she was a wrong number. 

During the remainder of our lengthy telephone conversation that required endless repetitions of sentences, I learned from Phi Bang that she was not alone. She and her entire family had safely escaped from Vietnam. Phi Bang also acknowledged she knew that I had made an application for her to come to Canada. Unknown to me, the Canadian Immigration Department had already contacted her. I also learned from Phi Bang that she had not left Vietnam to join me. She fled because the family had fled together. Phi Bang did not have any idea where they were all going to live but she did, however, inform me that she had already said no to the Canadian Immigration Department. Phi Bang had turned down my offer to sponsor her because she wanted to stay with her family. They had left everything behind in Vietnam and their only goal now was to keep the entire family together and settle somewhere in the United States. 

Phi Bang's news was a major disappointment and I felt a twinge of betrayal. After hanging up the telephone I walked over to the large picture window in the living room and silently stared out. The first rays of sunrise were starting to light up the peaks of the higher mountains. While dejectedly observing morning's beautiful and peaceful arrival in Vancouver, I thought over the events of the last two months and slowly realized that Phi Bang had never misled me. She had not really asked me for anything more than my help, whatever form that might have been or could have been. Foolishly, I had made too many assumptions without first asking enough of the right questions to find out the right answers. I had recklessly and blindly charged ahead in gleeful optimistic ignorance based mostly upon what I wanted and hoped for rather than on what Phi Bang may have wanted, needed or even expected from me.

While Phi Bang may have turned down my offer, she had not rejected me. During the remainder of August she called me on the telephone every two or three days. At last in early September Phi Bang called to let me know that she and her family would be leaving the refugee camp at Fort Indiantown Gap and she would not be able to call me on the telephone any more. Phi Bang was not certain where they were going to settle but she promised to write and give me the new address when she arrived there.

About a week later a letter arrived postmarked from Pittsburgh. Now was my turn to do a little detective work. Following a call to Directory Assistance in Pittsburgh I had obtained a telephone number for the address Phi Bang had given to me. She was surprised and pleased when I called her. Phi Bang told me that she and her family were going to be living in Pittsburgh for at least a year. 

During that telephone conversation I promised Phi Bang I would go to Pittsburgh to meet her and her family as soon as I could arrange to have time off work. She did not really believe I would do it because she knew that Vancouver was far from Pittsburgh. What Phi Bang did not know, and what I had not told her, was that I had already made travel arrangements and had my tickets in hand before calling her on the telephone. I wrote to Phi Bang to confirm and explain in detail my travel itinerary. The plan was to fly to Montreal, briefly visit with my parents and a day later head south and west by train to Pittsburgh via New York City.

"East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet." At one time I thought the verse might have been something Mark Twain had written until I finally looked up the meaning of twain in the dictionary. I also realized the little verse had a subtle prejudice behind the meaning. After thinking further, I concluded the prejudice was more blunt than subtle. 

Once I heard the expression used in an eavesdropped discussion about the Vietnam War, given as a reason why the Americans should never have gone to Vietnam. The argument was meaningless now because the Americans were no longer there. Instead, the Vietnamese were now invading America except they were coming as refugees. 

East and west; oriental and occidental; Pittsburgh and Vancouver; Phi Bang and me; were all these pairs so far distanced from each other that they could not meet; that we could not meet; that we could not one day be together? 

Impossible to answer questions because I was too naive to know whether or not the distances were too great.

"What a stupid line! It does not even rhyme. I may not play piano, but I can still tell time." I muttered defiantly with a determination to have the last word on the subject and prove the verse wrong.


The Oddblock Station Agent

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